Cricket in 2050

As technology advances relentlessly and commercial concerns tighten their grip on the cricketing world, MJ Akbar casts a satirical eye over how the great game might look in years to come

Sir Donald George Bradman, the fifth child of a farm labourer, was born on August 27, 1908 in Cootamundra, a small Australian town surrounded by the equally miniature towns of Temora, Boorowa, Jugiong, Junee, Coolamon and Narrandera. He died in the large Australian city of Adelaide on February 25, 2001. With the common consent of a passionate cricket community, Sir Donald was interred but not buried.

How do you bury a legend?

Bradman changed the art of batting with the third ball he faced in First Class cricket, a Sheffield Shield match in December 1927, facing Clarence (Clarrie) Grimmett, the greatest right-arm, leg-spin and googly bowler of his time, a forefather of Shane Warne. Bradman started with two fours. The third ball was pitched just outside the leg stump.

Bradman shifted his right foot back, moved across and hit the ball against the spin with a flat bat through midwicket for another boundary, rolling his wrists to keep the ball down.

It had not been done before. Like the leg glance of Colonel His Highness Shri Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji II, Jam Saheb of Nawanagar (nicknamed, with a singular lack of contemporary imagination, Smith), it inspired another revolution in the complex craft of cricket.

There is only one way to bury a legend. In amnesia. The onset of the age of amnesia can be dated with precision: 2008, when eight founding franchises with names borrowed from the culture of another realm (Daredevils, Knight Riders, Kings, Royals, Chargers) played a tournament for large dollops of prize money across the cricket hotspots of India over 44 days. Once upon a time, long, long ago, it took about 20 overs for a cricket match to warm up. In 2008, a side’s innings lasted a total of 20 overs while advertising lit up screen and stadium, cheerleaders flashed their physical assets, crackers burst into the night sky, music blared, rules melted and an insatiable crowd ate supper with gusto while reducing the noble, carefully woven tapestry of cricket to the tipple-and-tumble of fours and sixes.

T20 cricket was the hare against Test cricket’s tortoise

It was fun. High art had been laid low by hilarity, and there are no trophies for guessing who won in the long race. T20 cricket was the hare against Test cricket’s tortoise, but this time the hare was not complacent. It refused to rest. The miracle was that the persistent, or perhaps obstinate, tortoise was still trudging along a decade-and-a-half later. But the look on its face said it all. Test cricket had been given, with the grudging generosity which youth bestows upon age, a nook in a three-star care home, with the option of an occasional walk around the park.

There is no infinity in an old people’s home. Doctors arrive to take the pulse, examine the heart and check the brain before they scribble out the next round of prescriptions. The increasingly helpless patient gets an obligatory smile, but not the right to be consulted. Orders are issued, for the patient’s own good.

Test cricket is an open game. You bat till you can. There is no law against one side taking all five days over an innings. This might be lunatic, tyrannical or unsporting, but it is not illegal. In 2030, this strange, illogical anomaly was corrected at a special convention of cricket nations held at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, converted under new management into a sporting-holiday resort. The open game was shut. All innings were contained to a maximum of 80 overs, and matches reduced to four days, with a fifth day reserved for bad weather. Eighty overs was not as restrictive as it seems; with batsmen focused on 20-over or 100-ball games, few sides lasted 80 overs under the earlier rules.

CRICKETING LEGEND: Sir Donald George Bradman

Changes were instituted to add further urgency to the game. Every Test team was permitted four specialist bowlers who, crucially, did not have to bat. Instead, four specialist batsmen could take their place at the crease. A team therefore could play 11 good batsmen; but with the 80-over limit, they could not bat forever. This privilege could not be lopsided. The opposing captain could play his best fielding side. There was no compulsion on any player to field. A captain could therefore get six fielders from his bench strength to add to the four bowlers and a wicketkeeper on the ground. The ‘holistic’ (the defining word among the powerful administrators and lawmakers of the game) concept was to pit the best fielding, batting and bowling sides, with players able to switch roles on the instructions of a coach, as happened in football. It was inevitable that multi-purpose all-rounders fetched the highest prices at any auction.

Every spectator who bought a ticket (minimum price: Rs 10,000 per day in India; £500 in England) was given one free airline-style vegan meal per day, and a tablet containing algorithm to work out the permutations and combinations of what might happen next. Those who purchased elite tickets at Rs 1,00,000 a day were allotted a savvy assistant to explain what on Earth was going on in that computer, plus meals catered by the nearest five-star hotel and ironed napkins. In India, alcohol was still forbidden, not because the government was still stuffy, but for fear of what alcohol might do to the spectator.

By 2040, more reforms were introduced in the limited overs game with the usual two objectives: how to enhance advertising revenue, and how to keep the customer entranced so that he or she would ingest the advertisements. The players were given the variable respect due to transient professionals burning out on a short fuse. Since the old-fashioned idea of loyalty had been transferred completely from the player’s consciousness, all player fees were now performance bonuses or penalties. You read that right. There were penalties. It was capitalism at its most functional, and least sentimental. If you did well, you got X. If you did winning-well, you received 2X. If any player was stupid enough to lose a game through an unforced error, he had to pay compensation to the club. There were six players in the EIPL of 2042 who were out of pocket by the end of the season; one of them, from a village in eastern Bihar, claimed that he had been impoverished, but he may have been stretching facts.

Some players in the WIPL went to court in England claiming that the penalty clause was a crime against the principles of justice, but the magistrate quoted a long-forgotten proverb while dismissing the appeal: you made your bed, you lie in it – adding, gratuitously, that this was a bed of Indian nails, wasn’t it, ha ha.

Two international 20-20 leagues were created during the great synod of 2040. The East Indies Premier League of the Indian Subcontinent, or EIPL in promotional language, was based in India. The delegation from Pakistan tried long and hard to make two changes in nomenclature. It wanted ‘Indian Subcontinent’ to be changed to ‘SAARC’, but failed since no one else could recall what SAARC stood for. It then, quite cleverly in its own estimation, sought to change ‘Indies’ to ‘Pindies’.

The suggestion was withdrawn after prolonged laughter that reached hysterical proportions during cocktails in the evening. Match venues for EIPL were allotted to different nations of the subcontinent according to a formula based on estimated advertising revenue. This translated to a ratio in which 55 per cent of the matches were allotted to venues in India, 20 per cent to Dhaka, 15 per cent to Karachi and Lahore, and 10 per cent to Colombo. The Kabul Commandos were relieved to learn that they would not have to host any game. Their temporary base in India, Patiala, was far more relaxed.

FRANCHISE: The Delhi Daredevils in 2008

There was some acrimony as well about the West Indies Premier League, a conglomerate of all other cricketing regions. An MCC resolution to title the western league as the Great British Premier League, on the grounds that cricket’s spread was a byproduct of the old empire, was vetoed by nationalist Scots. Australia and New Zealand allowed their political estrangement to enter sport; they had not agreed on anything since New Zealand had become a member of CHIPTO, the China Pacific Treaty Organisation, in 2036.

South Africa did not possess the revenue heft to make a claim for the hub. With time running out, the countries finally agreed on the West Indies Premier League (WIPL) because it rhymed with East Indies, making the eventual common anthem easier to write for the advertising agency. The matches were split between England, Australia and South Africa. The West Indians, who would not have bothered if the tournament had been named after Mars and Venus, had only one demand: that the final be played on one of their islands, on rotation. There was complete unanimity over the decision that the final should cap a 10-day carnival to which everyone was invited.

The grand finale of Blue Sapphire Mid-Centenary Trophy 2050 was carefully structured around the one-hour break between the two innings. All cricket was now being played in a covered stadium; any batsman who could hit the ceiling was given an 8, or two runs more than the old favourite, 6. The old helicopter shot had become passé; players were hitting perpendicular rockets into the air. Needless to add, every team’s score had a sponsor. The Knight team, for instance, might run up a total of 218 Sunlight runs for four Dewdrop wickets.

Every minute of the GoShowMoreHour was sold, from the music-and-dance extravaganza to the lottery draw, ‘The World’s Got Talent’ competition, or a five-minute eating contest, and the spellbinding magic show at the end in which a conjuror grew mango trees from root to branch out of nothing, and threw the fruit into the stands. It was 60 matchless minutes of breathless, breakless high jinks, to quote the brochure, with a gargantuan additional revenue income from television rights. It would be only honest to add that the two hours of limited-overs cricket on either side of the interval fetched only a quarter or less from broadcast rights. No one was bothered, least of all the players, who now spent six months a year on the field and six months in a studio doing commercials. They had to be extremely unlucky not to make a fortune in two seasons. The administrators, each equipped with a personal company jet, looked very solemn whenever they were seen on television, seated in their gilt boxes in the arena, as if they were presiding over some sacred and mystical duties.

There were inevitably controversies over actual or potential change. There was serious discussion over the possibility of altering 20 overs into 15 eight-ball overs, but radicals cannot win every argument. One innovation, however, received universal and, we may even add, unlimited applause. Truth to tell, it was not taken in the public interest, but only as another ingenious way to pull in money. But who worries about the means when the results are so welcome? All broadcast commentators were forbidden from speaking during half of every over; the other half was retained for subliminal advertising while the game continued silently on the new, standard, 3D wallscreen. The public was fed up with botoxed – or, in a few cases, detoxed – commentators explaining why they had been given out, unfairly, after scoring 17 runs in 32 overs, off Muralidharan in 2003.

The era of umpiring errors came to an end in 2042. All decisions were henceforth made instantly by computers; the old time-wasting tactics by humans to accommodate some paid message was deemed too arcane, much past its sell-by date. There were no third umpires. There was only one omnipotent voice. No review was permissible. A machine could never be challenged. The very basis of 21st-century civilisation rested on the religious belief that the computer was always right.

Not an eyebrow was raised when the captain of India received the Blue Sapphire Mid-Centenary Trophy 2050, plus a two-carat diamond on a heavy gold chain, for each member of the winning team, at the Barbados Cricketrum Stadium from a lifesize, lifelike, super-witty Robot.

MJ Akbar is an MP and the author of, most recently, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle against Jinnah’s Islam

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